Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Trap - What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom (BBC2)

has been gripping viewing over the last three Sunday nights. Not that I agree with a lot of the analysis provided but in these days of 'Big Brother' and its ilk it is so refreshing to have a programme that stimulates and challenges contemporary orthodoxies. This three part TV programme on BBC 2 has also clearly engaged the critics.

As described by BBC Press Office:

'The Trap is a series of three films by Bafta-winning producer Adam Curtis that explains the origins of our contemporary, narrow idea of freedom.

It shows how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today's idea of freedom. This model was derived from ideas and techniques developed by nuclear strategists during the Cold War to control the behaviour of the Soviet enemy.

Mathematicians such as John Nash developed paranoid game theories whose equations required people to be seen as selfish and isolated creatures, constantly monitoring each other suspiciously – always intent on their own advantage.

This model was then developed by genetic biologists, anthropologists, radical psychiatrists and free market economists, and has come to dominate both political thinking since the Seventies and the way people think about themselves as human beings.

However, within this simplistic idea lay the seeds of new forms of control. And what people have forgotten is that there are other ideas of freedom. We are, says Curtis, in a trap of our own making that controls us, deprives us of meaning and causes death and chaos abroad.

The programme evokes a plethora of villains, some rightly cast from the economist von Hayek, John Nash, the Rand Corporation and its 'systems analysts' to R.D. Laing. In his first episode Lucas had, from my perspective, both the wrong starting point (and thus intellectual lineages) as well as not enough of the 'villains' - if one can be simplistic in what is a very complex analysis. There is also the possibility that Lucas, like some others, sees systems approaches as inextricably linked to Rand-style thinking, when this is not the case at all. Some of us engaged with systems thinking and practice have for a long time also been fervant critics of the excesses and theoretical weakness of Rand-style 'systems analysis'.

Given the same opportunty I would have started with Darwin and then the active mis-representation of his ideas - the conservation in language, theory and discourse of mistaken notions about 'competition' and the so-called ' survival of the fittest'. I would also have pointed to how understandings of human rationality (rational choice), competition (compared to cooperation) and 'systems' that come to equilibrium (compared to non-equilbrial systems) have been peversely conserved and gate-kept within the economics discipline - and thus over time, in the Treasuries of the world.

His final programme is very sobering and made me realise why I was never enthusiatic about Isaiah Berlin's work. His accounts of US destabilisatation of Nicaragua, of theory-blinkered US evangelist economists who worked alongside Boris Yeltsin in the catastrophic attempts at privatisation in Russia, repeated again in Iraq by Paul Bremmer, make gripping viewing. But, as John Fizpatrick observes in his thoughtful article, Curtis finishes on a positive note:

'It is no doubt with such thoughts in mind that at the end of the film Curtis boldly refutes the liberal sage: ‘Isaiah Berlin was wrong. Not all attempts to change the world for the better end in tyranny.’